Colorado Springs, Colo. - They are treading on high ground at the U.S. Women's Open on Sunday, not new ground.
Weather permitting, the 72 players contending for the national championship will conclude their business by combining the third and fourth rounds into a 36-hole marathon at The Broadmoor.
“Fitness is definitely a factor,” said Angela Stanford. “It is is fatiguing, physically and mentally. But it's not something we haven't dealt with before.”
Stanford, competing in her 12th Women's Open, has had an especially interesting week. She did not play at all on Thursday, played 36 holes on Friday, never started on Saturday and is looking at playing 36 holes on Sunday. She began the day at one -under par, three shots off the 36-hole lead held by Mika Miyazato.
“You really don't have a chance to let down here,” Stanford said of the mountainous course. “Honestly, I think sometimes at a U.S. Open, it's more mental than physical in a 36[-hole finish].”
The 36-hole finish is unusual for the championship, but hardly unprecedented. In fact, change has been one of the hallmarks of the oldest championship open to women professionals and amateurs.
The first Women's Open was conducted in 1946, a match-play affair that required contenders to play 36 holes two days in succession. Patty Berg defeated Betty Jameson, 5 and 4, in the 36-hole final match. At the time, the event was conducted by the Women's Professional Golf Association.
The following year, the format was changed to a stroke-play championship, still featuring a 36-hole finish. Jameson eased her disappointment from a year earlier by winning the inaugural stroke-play version..
In 1949, the championship came under the direction of the newly-formed Ladies Professional Golf Association. A group of 11 women, which included Berg and Jameson, established the association to conduct tournaments for professional players. The LPGA continued to run the competition under a three-day format and 36-hole finish through 1952.
In 1953, the LPGA petitioned the United States Golf Association to take ownership of the event and it became a true national championship. Entries for the first Women's Open conducted by the USGA numbered 37. For the 2011 Women's Open, the USGA received 1,295 entries, one less than the record established last year.
From 1953 to 1964, the USGA continued with the 36-hole finish. But in the summer of 1964, U.S. Open winner Ken Venturi nearly collapsed from heat stroke during the 36-hole finish at Congressional Country Club. At the same time, 36-hole finishes were becoming too cumbersome for the emerging influence of television.
In 1965, the USGA changed the format for its two Open championships, stretching the 72-hole competition over four days. That same summer, the Women's Open became the first women's golf event to be nationally televised. Carol Mann captured the new version of the championship, winning at Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, N.J.
However, the 36-hole day did not become entirely obsolete. In 2002, the USGA changed its format for sectional qualifying from 18 to 36 holes in one day. An 18-hole local qualifying stage was added that same year and then abolished in 2010. Twenty-five of the players who made the 36-hole cut this weekend had to survive a 36-hole sectional qualifier to get into the championship, including Lizette Salas, who was four strokes off the lead going into the day.
“I just try to think of it as another U.S. Open qualifier and try not to get too far ahead of myself,” Salas, 21, said. “Swing-wise, I try not to force it, because if I force it I get into trouble. I just try to breathe more and just play a game in my head. Just hit the fairway, hit the green and just make par – that's it.”
Golf is nothing if not unpredictable, a lesson Women's Open players have learned well over the years. In 2006, heavy fog interrupted the proceedings at Newport (R.I.) Country Club, forcing a 36-hole Sunday finish. When it was concluded on Sunday, Annika Sorenstam and Pat Hurst remained tied atop the leaderboard. An 18-hole Monday playoff was required, and Sorenstam prevailed..
In 1990, Betsy King, who missed the cut at The Broadmoor this week, staged a remarkable rally to win a 36-hole finale at Atlantic Athletic Club. King trailed leader Patty Sheehan by 11 strokes with 33 holes to play on Sunday before capturing her second successive title.
Should weather bring more interruptions to The Broadmoor on Sunday, there will be lots of precedent for extended finishes. In 1987, fickle weather stretched the championship over six days, including a Tuesday playoff. Laura Davies finally prevailed, defeating Ayako Okamoto and JoAnne Gunderson Carner in the 18-hole playoff.
Over the history of the championship, there have been 10 playoffs, with seven of them occurring since 1965, meaning play was extended to Monday.
So settle down for a long day of golf and, just in case, be prepared for more.